Out of that experience I must say that, as much as one might be tempted to laugh at the bizarre antics of Sunday’s incident involving small Iranian boats and US naval ships in the Strait of Hormuz, this is—as my old Russian professor used to say—nothing to laugh.
The situation is so reminiscent of what happened—and didn’t happen—from Aug 2-4, 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin and in Washington, it is in no way funny. At the time, the US had about 16,000 troops in South Vietnam. The war that was “justified” by the Tonkin Gulf resolution of Aug. 7, 1964 led to a buildup to 535,000 US troops in the late Sixties, 58,000 of whom were killed—not to mention the estimated two million Vietnamese who lost their lives by then and in the ensuing ten years.
Ten years. How can our president speak so glibly about ten more years of a U.S. armed presence in Iraq? Wonder why he doesn’t know anything about Vietnam.
Intelligence Lessons From Vietnam and Iraq
What follows is written primarily for honest intelligence analysts and managers still on “active duty.” The issuance of the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran was particularly welcome to those of us who had been hoping there were enough of you left who had not been thoroughly corrupted by former CIA Director George Tenet and his flock of malleable managers.
We are not so much surprised at the integrity of Tom Fingar, who is in charge of national intelligence analysis. He showed his mettle in manfully resisting forgeries and fairy tales about Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction.” What is, frankly, a happy surprise is the fact that he and other non-ideologues and non-careerist professionals have been able to prevail and speak truth to power on such dicey issues as Iran-nuclear, the upsurge in terrorism caused by the US invasion of Iraq, and the year-old NIE saying Iraq is headed for hell in a hand basket (with no hint that a “surge” could make a difference).
But those are the NIEs. They share the status of “supreme genre” of analytic product with the President’s Daily Brief and other vehicles for current intelligence, the field in which I labored, first in the analytic trenches and then as a briefer at the White House, for most of my 27-year career. True, the NIE “Iraq’s Continuing Program for Weapons of Mass Destruction” of Oct. 1, 2002 (wrong on every major count) greased the skids for the attack on Iraq on March 19, 2003. But it is more often current intelligence that is fixed upon to get the country into war.
The Tonkin Gulf events are perhaps the best case in point. We retired professionals are hopeful that Fingar can ensure integrity in the current intelligence process as well as in intelligence estimates.
Salivating for Wider War: Tonkin Gulf
Given the confusion last Sunday in the Persian Gulf, you need to remember that a “known known” in the form of a non-event has already been used to sell a major war—Vietnam. It is not only in retrospect that we know that no attack occurred that night.
Those of us in intelligence, not to mention President Lyndon Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy all knew full well that the evidence of any armed attack on the evening of Aug. 4, 1964, the so-called “second” Tonkin Gulf incident, was highly dubious. But it fit the president’s purposes, so they lent a hand to facilitate escalation of the war.
During the summer of 1964 President Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were eager to widen the war in Vietnam. They stepped up sabotage and hit-and-run attacks on the coast of North Vietnam. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara later admitted that he and other senior leaders had concluded that the seaborne attacks “amounted to little more than pinpricks” and “were essentially worthless,” but they continued.
Concurrently, the National Security Agency was ordered to collect signals intelligence from the North Vietnamese coast on the Gulf of Tonkin, and the surprise coastal attacks were seen as a helpful way to get the North Vietnamese to turn on their coastal radars. The destroyer USS Maddox, carrying electronic spying gear, was authorized to approach as close as eight miles from the coast and four miles from offshore islands, some of which had been subjected to intense shelling by clandestine attack boats.
As James Bamford describes it in “Body of Secrets:”
“The twin missions of the Maddox were in a sense symbiotic. The vessel’s primary purpose was to act as a seagoing provocateur—to poke its sharp gray bow and the American flag as close to the belly of North Vietnam as possible, in effect shoving its 5-inch cannons up the nose of the Communist navy. In turn, this provocation would give the shore batteries an excuse to turn on as many coastal defense radars, fire control systems, and communications channels as possible, which could then be captured by the men...at the radar screens. The more provocation, the more signals...